Surpassed only by a bullet from a marksman's rifle, a fencer's blade is the second-fastest moving object in Olympic competition. To effectively wield a competition sword, fencers must possess speed, agility, and lightning-fast reflexes to reach the top of their sport in world events.
Capturing fencing with a camera requires some of the same physical attributes, as well as a good understanding of the sport and sense of anticipation to consistently be able to release the shutter just at the moment a fencer scores a valid "touch." It also takes a fast camera to respond instantly to images and produce a high frame-per-second rate, along with a very fast memory card to optimize performance. And it's that last item--the fast memory card--that can really make the difference between success and failure at a critical moment.
As a photographer for fencing for the Olympics and the International Fencing Federation, I've shot more than 1 million digital images of fencing at grand-prix, world championship, and Olympic events on six continents since 2003. And, while I frequently only shoot bursts of three to five images, there are key times when I need to rely on my camera to capture a longer series of images without stopping.
For example, when women's sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis captured the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in 100 years at the Athens 2004 Games, a pause in shooting from the final touch to the immediate emotions of the medalist and her teammates might have meant missing moments in time that would be impossible to re-create. As a result, the ability to shoot a lot of images at high speed without the camera choking was essential.
How do you know how many shots you have? I normally shoot with the Canon EOS-1D Mark III, which at top speed is rated to produce 110 frames at 10 frames-per-second (fps). This is an optimal rating, meaning that it must be in JPEG mode (not RAW) and shooting large files at a "standard" level-8 compression setting. In reality, it's rare for most photographers to capture 110 images in succession at that speed. Either you don't need to shoot that many shots, or, even more commonly, your camera won't let you shoot that many images. Why?
While several camera factors can enter into this issue, one of the biggest choking hazards for DSLRs at any speed, assuming you're trying to shoot a continuous stream of images, is memory-card speed. As you shoot, images fill the camera buffer and are being written to the card. No matter how fast your camera might be able to shoot, if the card can't absorb the photos fast enough, then you'll come to a screeching halt. The slower the card, the fewer images you can shoot--no matter how many frames-per-second your camera boasts.
A Real-World Test
In order to be ready to shoot the largest number of images as quickly as possible at the Summer Olympics, I experimented with several cards of varying speeds and brands in an informal test at the "Good Luck Beijing" Olympic test trials in April. While officials were adjusting lights, testing scoring equipment, and analyzing logistics for the upcoming games, I shot a series of images until the Canon Mark III stopped, both in RAW and JPEG modes. Using a stopwatch, I tried this while shooting fencing action and timed each set of successive shots from first hitting the shutter release until the light on the camera (indicating the card is being written to) went out--which meant that I once again had a full set of images available to be shot. I was trying to simulate how it would work if I was shooting during one of those notorious "critical" moments where I needed as many shots as I could get in the shortest amount of time possible.
I used several brands of cards with varying speeds, the fastest of which was the Kingston CompactFlash Ultimate 266X four-gig card. In RAW, the speeds of shooting about 25 images (which was the "choke" point) and for the buffer to empty completely ranged from a low of 118 seconds--nearly two minutes--for a garden-variety CF card to a blistering 23 seconds for the Kingston 266X card. In JPEG, the camera shot about 80 frames with a range from 107 seconds (until the buffer cleared) to 27 seconds for the fastest card--once again, the Kingston.
Subjective, But Meaningful
If I had taken a truly scientific approach to this experiment, I'd also have compared different brands of cards rated to the same speed and eliminated various extraneous variables. So, admittedly, there is some subjectivity to my experiment. However, I simply used the cards with which I normally shoot to see which one would get the nod to shoot the most important moments at the Summer Olympics. And I achieved that, by a wider margin than I expected, with the Kingston card.
During my experiment, there was a very important, close bout between Italian and Chinese fencers where I actually did need to keep the shutter depressed--to the point that I had to stop timing that series of images and focus on getting some great shots. Fortunately, I actually did have the Kingston card in my camera at the time, because just after the card had filled, the Italian fencer began a movement I could tell was going to be interesting. In just that time, a couple of images freed after being written to the card, and I was able to take a really spectacular image of him leaping in the air. Had I been using one of the slower cards, I would undoubtedly have missed the shot.
Everyone doesn't require a card that will perform at this speed, but no one likes to wait. While DSLRs have overcome shutter lag, there are still many cameras hampered by memory-card lag--which can be just as problematic, depending on the situation, but a much less expensive problem to solve. Having a card that I can rely on to give me the shots I need, when I need it, is worth the extra money. It's what I call the "final touch" in getting the best images of world-class Olympic fencing.
Serge Timacheff (www.fencingphotos.com and www.tigermountainphoto.com) is an Olympic photographer who has specialized in images of the sport of fencing. He has taken more than 1 million images of the sport, and his photographs of fencing, as well as other subjects, have been published and presented worldwide. He is the author or coauthor of eight books, including Digital Photography for Dummies (Sixth Edition), released in fall 2008.